Women of Valor

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Free Speech

Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

The First Amendment to the Constitution notwithstanding, freedom of speech was far from guaranteed in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Wary of challenges to the existing political and economic system, government authorities and vigilantes frequently harassed those who espoused unpopular opinions. Goldman, not surprisingly, became a prime target. Hecklers disrupted her lectures and the police often suppressed her speeches and writings.

Under surveillance for much of her adult career, Goldman was arrested so often that she began to carry a book wherever she went, for fear of sitting in jail with nothing to read. According to her autobiography, when she asked once why she had been arrested, the police officer replied simply, "Because you're Emma Goldman. Anarchists have no rights in this community, see?"

Undeterred, Goldman pointed out that the United States' failure to live up to its stated ideals made it no better than repressive regimes it opposed. "The Russian Tsar stands for free speech, which means his right to say what he pleases," she wrote. "So do also the American Tsars: they have their rights of free speech. But the moment you or I claim the same right, law and authority become indignant at such Anarchist impudence."

As the government stepped up its attempts to suppress Goldman's views, liberal and radical Americans became increasingly vocal in their opposition to abridgement of First Amendment rights. Many people who disagreed with Goldman's unconventional opinions nonetheless supported her right to express herself freely. In 1903, Goldman became involved with the Free Speech League in New York City, which had become increasingly active in the wake of anti-anarchist laws passed after President McKinley's assassination in 1901. Goldman's career also served as inspiration for Roger Baldwin, a future founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Notes: 
  1. Quotation beginning "Because you're Emma Goldman" from Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 191.
  2. Quotation beginning "The Russian Tsars" from Emma Goldman, "En Route," Mother Earth, April 1908.
  3. Additional information from "Emma Goldman and Free Speech," on the website of the Emma Goldman Papers, accessed March 18, 2002, available at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/goldman/Exhibition/freespeech.html; Candace Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), 11-12, revised paperback edition from Rutgers University Press, 1990, 1999.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - Free Speech." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/free-speech>.